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Saturday, December 05, 2015

A Brief Update on the "Movie Night" Post

A few days ago I posted about the AALS's upcoming screening and discussion of the movie "Hunting Ground," which deals with campus sexual assault. I noted the seriousness of the issue and my expectation that discussion after the screening would be varied and useful. But I also noted that the movie has received a number of strong criticisms, some of them related to an incident involving a law school that receives prominent play in the movie. I linked to some of those, and to the filmmakers' detailed defenses of the film (while noting that some of their general statements in defense of the movie are "heated but weak"). I concluded:

Given that one of the filmmakers will be present for the screening and discussion, I assume those points will be fully aired. At the same time, given that [writer/director Kirby] Dick describes himself as "both an activist and a filmmaker" (a common feature of many current documentaries and one that raises important concerns, particularly for those of us with more conventional views on journalism), and that one of the film's producers wrote to . . . [a representative of] a potential interview subject, "We don’t operate the same way as journalists — this is a film project very much in the corner of advocacy for victims, so there would be no insensitive questions or the need to get the perpetrator’s side," I thought that people thinking of attending the screening might want to be aware of these criticisms, and better able to explore them during the discussion.  

In light of the hope for full and useful discussion--why else screen a movie by activists, one that has been sharply criticized for bending its narrative toward its goals?--I should note this recent story in the Harvard Crimson, in which the filmmakers, inter alia, double down on their attack on critics. Here's the key paragraph from the story:

In an emailed statement, “The Hunting Ground” director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering . . . criticized the Law School professors, many of whom have been vocal critics of Harvard’s recently overhauled approach to handling sexual harassment cases, for their letter critiquing the film. 

“The Harvard Law professors’ letter is irresponsible and raises an important question about whether the very public bias these professors have shown in favor of an assailant contributes to a hostile climate at Harvard Law,” Dick and Ziering wrote.

This places the possibility of useful discussion after the screening, and hence, perhaps, the value of the AALS's choice to screen the film at all, in a somewhat new light. (Given how recent the statement is, I of course don't hold the AALS responsible for not anticipating it, although it is probably true that the filmmakers themselves turn out to have been less than ideal panelists.) There are surely more charitable ways to read that statement. A less charitable, but still reasonable, reading is that the filmmakers are, in effect, threatening any academics who publicly criticize the film, attempting to cow them into silence by warning that any statements will trigger efforts to encourage a Title IX investigation of their institution.

Although I doubt they have a leg to stand on, it's an unfortunate approach, to say the least. I hope that AALS members attending the screening will nevertheless feel free to ask any questions they like, positive or negative, and will press the filmmaker on this particular statement itself. I also hope the screening's moderator will make note of this statement before the discussion starts, both out of fair notice to any would-be questioners in the audience, and to make clear the AALS's view that attempting to pre-emptively chill discussion is no way to address an important and pressing issue.   

Posted by Paul Horwitz on December 5, 2015 at 11:25 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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